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‘These measures will absolutely save lives’ | GAO issues report on military vehicle training accidents

The parents of a local Marine killed in a rollover accident have been pushing for a system-wide investigation and changes to prevent these mishaps.

WASHINGTON — The parents of a local Marine killed in a vehicle rollover accident during training say a Government Accountability Office report released Wednesday will “absolutely save lives.” The report on military training accidents comes about four months after WUSA9 first brought you 1st Lt. Conor McDowell’s story.

The GAO report is 103 pages long and includes nine recommendations for how to prevent military vehicle training accidents. McDowell’s family has been waiting two years for this document.

“Each time I have to read and remember what happened to Conor,” Michael McDowell said. “We never saw his face again.”

Michael McDowell’s and Susan Flanigan's son, Conor McDowell, died when the Marine Corps vehicle he was commanding during training rolled over in 2019.

RELATED: Report shows more service members die in training than in combat. How one family is seeking change after losing their son

“It’s horrifying to read through the details of anything related to my son’s accident,” Flanigan said. “It’s horrifying through these two years to find out new accidents that have occurred and know that the families are facing the same kind of grief and mystification of how and why and where.”

Conor McDowell's accident is one of the 3,753 investigators examined in this report.

“It's hard, really hard to face that, but we feel that there's a bigger purpose for pushing through that pain,” Flanigan said.

Credit: Family Photo
1Lt. Conor McDowell was killed when the military vehicle he was commanding rolled over.

The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, looked at a decade's worth of non-combat vehicle accidents and deaths. They found the Army and Marine Corps had prevention practices, but didn't consistently implement them. They also list issues with training and leadership.

“They're all connected,” Michael McDowell said. “It's a systemic problem, but it comes from leadership at the top. If the top leadership is not ensuring safety, then those below will feel that they can’t do it either.”

The recommendations for how to fix these problems include appropriate staffing levels; driver training programs with specific performance criteria; and communication of range hazards.

“We've got to do better,” Maryland Rep. Anthony Brown (D) said. “We’ve got to make sure we implement these recommendations, and everyone has a responsibility.”

RELATED: Lawmakers question military officials about training deaths after investigation shows more service members die in training, not combat

Brown sits on the House Armed Services Committee and also served in the military for 30 years. 

The Army and Marine Corps concurred with the recommendations from the GAO. When asked how Congress can ensure the Department of Defense addresses these concerns and implements the recommendations, Brown pointed to many facets, including training and readiness. 

“There is a dollar figure associated with [training and readiness], so Congress has to make sure that the Department has the resources to do the training, to make sure that vehicles are safe and operable, that they’ve got a good maintenance program in place, a good training program,” he said “Commanders and the Department have to make sure that they’ve got well-documented training programs, they have evaluations of that training.”

Brown explained Congress has an oversight responsibility and will be demanding data to track trends in these accidents.

Conor McDowell's parents feel there is one goal here for their military family and others like them.

“We are not here to attack our defense forces,” Michael McDowell said. “It's the last thing. We want to make it better. This is just a good beginning. It’s not the end. It’s a journey.”

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